I had the opportunity to see Kate Orff from SCAPE speak a few weeks back at University of Washington, and it was inspiring to see the mix of project work and activism that is the mark of this creative firm. This project aligns nicely as it is featured in her new book, Toward an Urban Ecology and is another example of ecological design in an urban context. She focused on some of the older projects in her talk, but this is one I’ve been waiting to explore here at Hidden Hydrology, the Town Branch Commons in Lexington, Kentucky.
The project unique example of using the historical hydrology and geology as design inspiration – not a true daylighting but falling somewhere in the middle of the continuum from art to restoration. From Architect’s Newspaper, a recent post SCAPE turns Lexington, Kentucky’s long-buried water into an asset provides a pretty extensive visual overview and some description into the project that complements the overview in the book.
“Town Branch Commons weaves a linear network of public space along the 2.5 mile path of the historic Town Branch creek in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Once a waste canal, sewer, and water conduit for the city, the buried stream channel of Town Branch is an opportunity to reconnect the city with its Bluegrass identity and build a legacy public space network for the 21st century. Rather than introducing a single daylit stream channel into the city fabric, the design uses the local limestone (karst) geology as inspiration for a series of pools, pockets, water windows, and stream channels that brings water into the public realm.”
The renderings show the movement of water and the use of stone to embody the conceptual ideas of the Karst geology, which is responsible for the landscape of disappearing and reappearing springs. A more expansive overview of the landscape type from the International Association of Hydrogeologists (IAH) site describes it as: “A landscape formed by the erosion of bedrock, characterized by sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage systems. Many of the surface features are due to underground processes of the weak acids of groundwater dissolving the rock and creating a varied topography.”
This is seen in the design concepts for the spaces that are woven through the corridor, an approach referenced in Toward an Urban Ecology as a ‘Geology as Materiality’ (p.38). The Karst metaphor is incorporated with orderly frames, referencing with geology within a semi-formal urban context that softens the spaces while maintaining functionality. This is where the design-centric approach would differ from the more formal restoration, referencing a key hydro-geological precedent in an urban context. As mentioned in the book ‘Towards an Urban Ecology’: “Town Branch is recast as hybrid hydrological and urban infrastructure, creating defined and safe spaces for water, pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles along its path. In the downtown core, streets are realigned to make way for an extended public realm, where water is expressed not at the surface, but underground, as rainwater-fed filtration gardens clean the waters of Town Branch before entering the culvert below.” (p.36)
The concept of the sunken areas allow for an immersive experience within an urban realm. The separation of grade and edges of formal and natural provide variety of experiences that provide a model for ‘daylighting’ and applied urban ecology that is both functional and artistic, aesthetic but with some ecological rigor. As mentioned in A/N: “To create freshwater pools—SCAPE calls them “karst windows,” in reference to similar naturally occurring formations—the design will tap old culverts (essentially large pipes) that previously kept Lexington’s karst water out of sight.“
And more dramatically enveloping in a recreation of the Karst geology and incorporation of moving, dynamic water, while also allowing for physical access to the water, a rare treat in urban areas. This image shows waterfalls near Rupp Arena, a high-visibility area adjacent to more formal plaza spaces at surface.
The nature/culture connection is strong, and a unique model that is about the landscape of Lexington. As mentioned in A/N: “Here it’s all about finding a unique identity framed around a cultural and geological history of a place,” said Gena Wirth, SCAPE design principal. “What’s replicable is the multipurpose infrastructure that unites the city, its story, and its systems.”
An interesting part of the narrative is not just the project design, but the generative strategy used by SCAPE to develop the project. Those already familiar with another SCAPE project, the fantastic Safari 7, (which will get some documentation here soon) will note some similarities of the use of place-based audio and mapping, They documented a public outreach process Town Branch Water Walk which aimed to connect residents to the local landscape. From their site:
“The result, Town Branch Water Walk, is a self-guided tour of downtown Lexington’s formerly hidden water body, Town Branch Creek, with content developed together with University of Kentucky students. The design intervention is not a physical landscape, but a communication tool– using podcasts, maps, and walks for the interpretation of urban systems. The Water Walk gives a broad understanding of the biophysical area around the Town Branch, reveals the invisible waters that run beneath the city, and demonstrates some of the impacts each resident of Lexington can have on the river and its water quality. By sharing how water systems and people are interrelated—both locally and globally—the Town Branch Water Walk makes stormwater quality relevant, linking it with the history, culture, and ecology of the city.”
The walking tour is accompanied by audio that can be used in situ as podcasts, and as more formal walking or bike tours – and this model/map was also used at events along to provide listening stations for the various stories.
There’s more on this process worthy of additional exploration and future posts, and check out the audio and links at www.townbranchwaterwalk.com
All images via SCAPE